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Sunday, June 20, 2021

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Center for Civic Engagement holds Hajizada panel discussion

The arrest of Adnan Hajizada was a violation of free speech and human rights that could energize young activists in Azerbaijan and around the world, according to a panel assembled by the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement.

The CCE held the panel discussion last Friday to address Hajizada, a 2005 Richmond graduate who was arrested in Azerbaijan over the summer with Emin Milli, a fellow blogger.

Hajizada was arrested with Milli after they were involved in a fight in Baku, the Azerbaijani capital. Hajizada and Milli were charged with hooliganism and causing bodily harm.

The panel consisted of Vincent Wang, chairman of the political science department; Elmar Chakhtakhtinski, chairman of Azerbaijani-Americans for Democracy; and Stephanie Rice, news editor for The Collegian.

Chakhtakhtinski said that the mission of Azerbaijani-Americans for Democracy, shortened to AZAD which means "freedom" in the Azerbaijani language, was to support U.S. efforts to promote free speech, free elections, democracy and human rights in Azerbaijan.

Chakhtakhtinski, providing background on the Azerbaijani political situation, said the government had been cracking down on free speech by suppressing the media and jailing journalists and activists, such as Hajizada and Milli.

Despite this, he expressed optimism that many young activists in Azerbaijan were taking up the fight for freedom.

"The young people are taking the lead, expressing themselves openly, and they increasingly are using new forms of media, like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube," Chakhtakhtinski said. "The government is having a very hard time controlling this flow of information."

Wang led 18 professors in writing a letter to Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan. He said that his decision to write the letter came out of a sense of admiration for Hajizada, and also concern for the former student, even though he didn't personally teach him.

"I also feel a sense of responsibility, because if it is true that his democratic ideas were fermented when he was [attending Richmond], then we have some kind of a responsibility," Wang said.

Wang also explained the United States' foreign policy dilemma in dealing with the Azerbaijani government. He said that the U.S. government was trying to balance the human rights issues with the strategic interests and natural resources that came with a relationship with Azerbaijan, a nation rich in oil and gas.

Rice, who helped cover the story as it broke during the summer, said that she hoped the coverage from all the news agencies would interest those who might want to react and support Hajizada.

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"As a journalist, we're not supposed to, and we can't, and we shouldn't put any of our opinion in our stories," Rice said. "But we can exercise our right to free speech so that others can be informed about this, people can be informed and they can act out and do something about it."

Both Chakhtakhtinski and Wang voiced their hope that Hajizada and Milli would soon be released.

Chakhtakhtinski said that he thought the Azerbaijani government had been surprised at the publicity the story had received internationally, and Wang said that Azerbaijan might eventually have to go along with international opinion on the matter.

"I think that in this day in age, in the era of globalization, closed, authoritarian, oil-rich regimes such as Azerbaijan must be beholden to the international opinion," Wang said. "They want to look good, they want to appear good. So our calculation is that the more international publicity this would generate, the safer [Hajizada and Milli] are."

The discussion, entitled "Adnan's Voice: The Struggle to Bring Free Thought to Azerbaijan," was part of the CCE's Brown Bag Lunch Series, and was put on in conjunction with the Office of International Education.

Contact staff writer Stephen O'Hara at stephen.ohara@richmond.edu

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